Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

How does family background affect women's education?

Image: A student reads next to cats at Kennedy park in Miraflores district in Lima. REUTERS/ Mariana Bazo.

Bridget Ansel
Assistant Editor for Publications and Development, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
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Your family background plays an important role in determining your future. And hundreds of studies prove it. In lieu of the old American “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” adage, social scientists have turned their attention to the impact of place, race, gender, and parental income and wealth.

These academics have taken what most people know intuitively—that advantage is passed down through the generations—and scrupulously mined new data to understand the nuances and specific mechanisms through which this process occurs. A new working paper by Sarah Kroeger and Owen Thompson of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, adds to this growing body of research and looks at the educational mobility of women across three generations—those born between the early 1910s and the early 1980s.

The 20th century brought enormous social and demographic change for women, who saw a transformation in many areas. Only 8 percent of U.S. women born in 1930, for example, graduated from college compared to 40 percent of those born in 1980. Not only is this rate of increase large overall, but also exceeded that of men over the same timeframe.

The last century not only saw increased female educational attainment, but also saw women enter the U.S. workforce at a stunning rate. Their rising hours of work and higher incomes provided a boost to the American economy. And as men dealt with stagnant wage growth and falling employment, women’s incomes kept many American families financially afloat. Considering the connection between educational attainment and earnings, it became increasingly important for women to further their studies.

These shifts in education, however, took place amid the United States’ persistent educational inequality, leading the authors to ask whether “large overall increases in female education occurred disproportionately within families that started out with relatively high levels of female schooling.”

The authors analyze a nationally representative sample of roughly 2,000 women born in the early 1980s, comparing their educational outcomes to those of their mothers and grandmothers. Kroeger and Thompson’s work—part of an emerging literature that comprehensively analyzes intergenerational mobility across three generations—concludes that the connection between a grandmother’s and granddaughter’s educational attainment is actually twice as strong as previously assumed. While women became better educated generally speaking, those whose mother and grandmother had advanced relatively far in school saw the greatest educational gains.

The authors suggest a few reasons for this. For one, a woman is more likely to go to college herself if she grew up spending time with her college-educated grandmother (compared to if she did not). Educated grandmothers may spend more time reading to their granddaughters or helping them with their homework. Or they may shape what their granddaughters see as “normal” in terms of education. Alternatively, educated grandmothers may be able to pass along financial and social legacies (such as an Ivy League acceptance letter, or entrance to a prestigious debutante ball) even after they’ve passed away. Contributing to their college fund, or passing along a legacy status to certain colleges or social clubs does not require Grandma to directly interact with her granddaughters.

Demographics could also play a part, as there is a strong correlation between the number of kids a woman has and her education level. Over three generations, grandmothers and mothers with college degrees are underrepresented in the sample, meaning that the majority of the sample is made up of lesser-educated women. But even once they weight the sample to account for this disparity, they find that fertility is not a quantitatively important determinant of educational transmission.

Kroeger and Thompson warn us, however, to take such findings with a grain of salt. They say that even though they could not quantitatively prove anything, they are aware that:

… core demographic processes like marriage, immigration and mortality often vary by education and other measures of socioeconomic status, and it is highly plausible that these processes could influence three-generation transmission. For instance grandmother’s education could affect whether and whom their daughters marry, and in turn the family structure in which their granddaughters were raised or the characteristics of their granddaughter’s fathers.

The authors encourage future work on this topic to consider such demographic factors even though they could not establish a definitive quantitative link.

Regardless, this paper is an important contribution to understanding the specific ways in which advantage is passed from one generation to the next. In particular, better understanding the changing nature of women’s roles over the past generation is important in an era where an increasing number of women are the family breadwinners. This paper and others like it will allow policymakers the level of detail needed to not only boost outcomes for women but for the workforce as a whole.

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Equity, Diversity and InclusionEducation and Skills
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